Tour of the Five Senses: Sight

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We know it’s important to incorporate the senses into our scenes, but remembering to actually do it (and do it with skill) takes practice! So, I’m offering a “tour of the senses,” complete with tips and examples for how to apply ‘em to our writing.

In the end, it’s not about describing the senses themselves. It’s about describing emotion and action—the senses are the tools to help us do it well. You don’t build a house because you think it’s really cool to use a hammer. You build a house because of what it will become when it’s finished, and that hammer helps you get there.

First up – Sight.

Sight is one of the most powerful senses, because we see everything around us even if we’re not trying to engage the rest of our senses. It’s probably one of the most natural senses to slip into our writing. We do it all the time. It also can be the most fun sense to remove when it’s time to give your characters a challenge.

What the Eye Catches
Cop shows sometimes make reference to the fact that our eyes catch far more detail than our minds can interpret. For writers, that’s both good and bad. It means our characters SEE an awful lot, but we can focus in on the details we need to tell a certain scene.

Don’t ignore those other details fully, though. They’re what help in worldbuilding. Even if they never make it onto the page directly, YOU know they exist, and your world will feel more fully formed as a result. It’s the difference between taking two pages to describe exactly what a hairy backed greersnork looks like…and knowing what it looks like while allowing your actual on-page descriptions to serve the scene in the best way possible.

Near and Far
With sight, remember to take scope into account. This will help you decide which visual details to leave in a scene and which can be ixnayed. When fighting a battle, for example, can your character see the tall pines growing on the hills beyond the battlefield? Sure. Would he or she notice them in the midst of battle? Heck no! Unless they’re part of the immediate (or upcoming) action.

Instead, your MC’s focus would be on seeing things close up. Like that enemy sword swinging for his or her head! Think of it like a camera lens. You can’t show us everything at once, so choose wisely when you’re deciding where your characters’ visual focus should be in any given scene.

This is one way to play with sight. Characters can “see” the same scene or action very differently, depending on their prior knowledge and experience. This is how misunderstandings occur. It’s a great tool for setting up conflict, betrayals and suspicion, and, as with so many of the other senses, it’s not about the sense itself as much as it is about the character’s interpretation of it.

Taking it Away
HaHA, now the fun stuff! Nothing incites panic and creativity in characters (not to mention kick-ass plotting) more than taking away their advantages, and sight is one HUGE advantage. Whether it’s permanent or temporary (even just a dark room where they can’t see), try removing the sense of sight from a certain scene. It ups the stakes and tension pretty quick. And it opens new doors for different, creative ways to handle the action—both in terms of what your characters DO and how you DESCRIBE it. Try it as a writing exercise for a scene you think needs more tension.


Let’s have some fun with a pair of examples. We'll start out with the basics and build on them throughout the series. Sight only, for now.

Lovers on a Beach
I couldn’t see the stars, not directly, but I didn’t know how they could possibly top their reflection in his eyes. 

[The reflection for our MC here is more important than the real thing. Sight is an important sense even when describing what she CAN'T see.]

Were-bats Attack!!
I saw them. Dozens of them. Winging at me with their little claws out—furred like a bear’s, not feathered. And then all went black. Omigosh, had one of them landed on my FACE?!

[Think about everything sight captures in this one: number, flight, claws, texture of fur vs. feathers, absence of light. It's also tied to the MC's emotion to those realizations.]

Back next week with TOUCH!


  1. What great advice, Nicole! I personally love the use of perspective to set up misunderstandings and betrayals. It's amazing how one scene can seem so different depending on which character is viewing it. Reminds me of Ian McEwan's book ATONEMENT, where the whole story rests on one pivotal scene and one character's (incorrect or purposefully misunderstood?) interpretation of it.

  2. I love the idea of telling the same story from different perspectives, each one advancing the plot a little further until it all comes together at the end. I have at least one story exactly like that! ;)

  3. What a great bunch of tips. I'll surely be back for the rest of the senses! It's true that one of the surefire ways to raise tension and fear is to have your characters creeping along a dark tunnel, for example. You tend to get echoey footsteps which get much more focus than if they could see, and their mind's eye is filling in what dangers may lurk, along with the reader's, if the scene is done right.

  4. Fantastic advice! Sight is definitely a writer's go-to sense. One of the hardest stories I've written was through the "eyes" of a blind teen. It's hard to show a picture without sight.

  5. Julie - Great example of varying perspectives! It's a fun technique to play with on the page.

    Georgina - The trick is being able to flawlessly pull them all together, right? :)

    Nick - My imagination would definitely be spewing out danger scenarios if I were creeping down a dark tunnel without being able to see!

    Cherie - V. neat idea! I imagine that story must have been both challenging and rewarding.

  6. What a cool tour idea! I always have to remind myself to include the senses in my writing. It makes the read more immersive, which makes perfect sense. :)

  7. this is a great series you're doing! i think sight is easiest for me, but i sometimes have trouble describing what is seen... that thingie by the other shiny thingie, you know! looking forward to the rest of the senses!

  8. Your features are always so informative. I know I rely heavily on sight and sound, maybe too much at times. I know I need to work on balancing the senses.

  9. Looks like you've got a good tour started here. It's amazing how much more engrossed in a story a person gets when all their senses are engaged.

  10. I need a reminder of this every now and then! I know I'm supposed to write with all the senses, but somehow I seem to forget that once I start writing!